Just a couple of days ago I was scrolling Instagram (wait, that’s your favourite pastime too?!) and I came across two consecutive posts about Toxic Positivity. I am convinced that Instagram is magical and that my phone listens to conversations; so, that’s how much I know about the algorithm.
However, be it algorithm or coincidence, I came across these posts and it got me thinking: is there too much positivity on my feed and, if so, what are its dangers?
What is toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity can be described as:
‘the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations (…) (which) results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.‘
Samara Quintero, LMFT, CHT and Jamie Long, PsyD: Toxic Positivity: The Dark Side of Positive Vibes
It can also describe:
‘a sort of unintentional gaslighting – which, whether the individual realises it or not, ends up stopping someone short of expressing how they truly feel.’
Not all positivity is toxic, but it seems to me that what lies behind the constant need to ‘look on the bright side’, is the belief and fear that all negativity is toxic.
In praise of negativity
A few years ago, I used to be part of a local church and it used to be part of the way I existed: the belief in God organised my existence. There was something very good about having that belief and it got me through some really tough moments in my life. In a way, it started as a way to heal and to connect to my spirituality.
However, as four years went on I started to resent some of those same beliefs – I wanted, or rather I needed, the anxiety, the bad and the negative. I could no longer live a life of ‘faith, hope, and love’.
Anxiety is part of life and what we call ‘bad emotions’ are also very integral parts of our existence – not something to be avoided at all costs.
Who are we protecting?
Do you always feel positive when you scroll? Or do you get a sense of unease and inauthenticity? What is your agenda when you post?
I know for myself that I have often felt the sting of untruth when I was looking for an inspirational caption for my photos. Why? Who is it for?
What is the meaning behind toxic positivity? In my experience, I have wanted to see a silver lining when I felt that my negative emotions were ‘inappropriate’ and ‘unwanted’. Who wants my sadness and anxiety, right? But actually, those emotions are all part of my authentic experience. By not sharing all my emotions with those I care about (and care about me) not only am I living in bad faith (inauthentically), but I am also shutting the door of deep and real connection.
We are all waiters on social media
However, social media is not comprised of only people you care about and who care about you. So why should we be authentic?
That, I feel, is a very good question. What is so bad about putting on a show of toxic positivity for the eyes of people who, really, just need to be entertained for a few hours of their day?
Would Sartre only post inspirational quotes? Or would he see the waiter in all of us? Since social media has come to determine and represent much of our being, should be completely truthful?
I don’t have the answer to these questions, but I have a sense about a couple of things:
- toxic positivity only exacerbates mental health problems: when all we can do is compare our crappy lives to the belles images of others, what becomes of authenticity?
- toxic positivity perpetuates bad faith: if I see some of my emotions as unacceptable, that will translate into my other relationship – until we will all live in a world of shallow feelings and communication.
Bad is good and good is bad
Welcome to the ambivalent world of grey! The world we live in seems to always edge towards binary understandings of existence: there’s the bad guys and the good guys. However, that is not always true: bad can be good and good can be bad.
Just because I see sunshine and rainbows, I don’t have to feel good. Just because someone experiences anxiety it is not our place to ‘make it go away’ or stick a ‘it could be worse’ plaster on it. What is a life of pure happiness? False, that’s what it is. An impossibility.
I know that it is through the bad and the good that my character is forged. I know that it is when I struggle with meaning and doubts that I grow. I also know that when I am nurtured and understood, I feel secure and energised.
Moral of the story for me: stop believing all that you see on social media and embrace the good, the bad and the ugly, as that will mean embracing life.